TALLAHASSEE — The well-connected publisher of the official state driver's manual can print the handbook for another five years, a Leon County judge ruled Thursday over the objections of the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
The National Safety Commission, run by Jacksonville-area businessman Ken Underwood, has the right to a five-year extension of a contract the state wants to terminate, Judge Jackie L. Fulford wrote in a 24-page ruling.
Under his current contract, Underwood has been printing and distributing the handbook since 2005 at no cost to the state in return for the right to charge people $6.95 to ship the book and the ability to include advertisements for his driving school. The National Safety Commission was the only bidder for the work back in 2005, but the state had hoped to terminate the agreement at the end of the year, saying it wanted to start over with a clean slate.
Fulford said no.
"The contract between the National Safety Commission and the department gives National Safety Commission an unambiguous, unilateral renewal option that was properly exercised by the National Safety Commission," Fulford said in her ruling, which has been expected for months.
The department said attorneys were reviewing the ruling "to determine our next step," including whether to appeal.
Ultimately, however, it will be up to Gov.-elect Rick Scott whether to continue to pursue the case.
Underwood, who donated $35,000 to Scott's political action committee Let's Get To Work and about $5,000 to Scott's personal campaign account, doesn't expect an appeal.
"The new administration is all about cutting government waste and lowering spending," he said "Why would the new administration spend thousands of dollars in court fighting for something that they currently get for free?" Underwood asked.
The driver's handbook contract has a rocky past. In 2006, news broke that Underwood hired lobbyist Sherry Dickinson, the wife of then-highway safety director Fred Dickinson, who approved the contract. An audit said the agency should have disclosed the potential conflict.
And this year, former state Sen. Carey Baker, R-Eustis, filed legislation that would have required the state to extend Underwood's contract. The bill died in committee under intense skepticism from other lawmakers.
Information from Times files was used in this report.